While the Internet fixated on the hearing’s few supposed gaffes, the lawmakers at the dais largely kept their fire tightly focused on the company’s handling of kids' safety throughout the session — the precursor to a high-profile session Tuesday which will feature the whistleblower behind the Journal’s disclosures. Here are our top takeaways from the hearing:
Senators' investigation into Facebook’s impact on kids has just begun
Senators said they left the session with more questions than answers, and that they plan to comb through the mountain of documents the Facebook whistleblower gave them to see how the company’s testimony lines up with its own research.
“We’ll do a deeper dive on the documents that we have and review some of the inconsistencies in the answers she gave us today,” Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) told The Technology 202 after the hearing.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) told reporters she still has questions about who knew what and when. Davis told Klobuchar after repeated questioning that she was aware of the research prior to the Journal series being published, but lawmakers may press for more answers about when the company’s top brass, such as Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg or Instagram CEO Adam Mosseri, found out about the results.
Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.) said the panel may look to issue subpoenas against the company if it still won’t cooperate with lawmakers’ biggest demand from Thursday — for Facebook to release all of the research into how its products may harm children, including the data that informed its reports. (Davis said the company was exploring ways to release more of the research.)
“That's an issue that we may be discussing if the company isn't more cooperative,” he told reporters. Blumenthal also said he wouldn’t rule out hauling in other Facebook executives.
Congress is determined to protect the whistleblower from retaliation
For a second hearing in a row, lawmakers pressed a Facebook executive to commit that the company wouldn’t retaliate against the whistleblower behind the Journal series. And for the second time, the executive said the company wouldn’t — but this time with a notable caveat.
Asked by Blumenthal whether Facebook would commit there’d be “no legal action based on the disclosure of the whistleblower’s documents,” Davis said the company was “committed to not retaliating for them coming to the Senate.”
The remarks — which emphasize the whistleblower coming forward to Congress, not the disclosures themselves — could leave room for Facebook to try to seek retaliation.
“I was very specific in my question. She was very specific in her evading it,” Blumenthal told reporters. “I’m going to interpret her answer in effect as saying they plan no legal action and no adverse action to the whistleblower.”
The company’s past remarks on the matter were more definitive. Steve Satterfield, the first Facebook executive to testify before Congress after the Journal series went live, was repeatedly pressed by Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) last Tuesday to make the same commitment.
After initially declining to respond, he acknowledged, “Of course it wouldn’t be appropriate to retaliate against anyone.”
Asked whether he would “issue a commitment to [Lee] that Facebook will not retaliate against them,” Satterfield replied, “Senator, yes, I’m happy to commit to that.” (It’s a federal crime to lie to Congress during sworn testimony.)
Congress has questions about Facebook pausing its Instagram Kids plans
Lawmakers at the session drilled into Facebook’s plans to launch a version of Instagram tailored for children, which the company recently “paused” amid scrutiny.
Klobuchar demanded to know what “specific criteria” Facebook would use to “determine whether to unpause the plan.” Davis said the company intends to “talk with more parents, to engage with more policymakers like yourself, to engage with more experts.”
But those answers didn’t satisfy lawmakers, who pressed the company to make specific commitments to change its products, and demanded to know who would have the ultimate say in restarting the project. Davis said it was not one “single person” but rather a “collaborative team within the company” that would make the final call.
The spotlight on kids’ privacy issues is growing
Several senators said Thursday that recent incidents heightened the need to strengthen federal protections for kids’ online privacy.
Senate Commerce Chair Maria Cantwell (D-Wash.), whose committee has primary jurisdiction over data privacy, said recent discussions in Congress have “crystallized” the need to update children’s privacy laws, and said Thursday’s hearing put even more focus on it.
After the session, some lawmakers said they’re entertaining the idea of advancing such legislation in lieu of action on a broader data privacy bill, which has remained stalled for years.
“We’ve been talking about that,” Blackburn said. “This is an issue that we’re going to keep working on.”
Other social networks will take the hot seat on kids’ safety issues, too
Facebook can’t have all the fun. Blumenthal said his consumer protection subcommittee plans to hold a “series” of sessions on kids’ online safety, featuring additional social media companies.
Blackburn previously said lawmakers expect to hear from Google-owned YouTube and Snapchat, two rivals of Facebook and Instagram. Blumenthal said he was not yet ready to disclose which companies have committed to testifying.
Facebook, which has repeatedly pointed lawmakers at rival TikTok while taking heat on Capitol Hill over the years, seized the opportunity in the hearing’s closing moments to suggest its company leaders as a witness. Davis also namechecked Google and YouTube.
But Blumenthal got the last word. “I would emphasize that each company bears its own responsibility. The race to the bottom has to stop. Facebook in effect has led it.”
Our top tabs
The Senate confirmed FTC Commissioner Rohit Chopra to lead the U.S. consumer finance regulator
Rohit Chopra’s leadership of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau would leave the Federal Trade Commission’s Democrats and Republicans deadlocked 2-2 as Federal Trade Commission Chair Lina Khan attempts to transform the agency and go after Big Tech. President Biden has nominated Big Tech critic Alvaro Bedoya to fill Chopra’s seat.
Chopra will lead the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau, which was created in the aftermath of the 2007 to 2008 financial crisis. In his confirmation hearing, Chopra said he would take action against behavioral advertising, data collection and other practices by banks.
White House aide Tim Wu previewed the Biden administration’s antitrust agenda
The Biden administration has a multipronged approach for antitrust enforcement, my colleague Cat Zakrzewski reported. The administration has sought “strong and enforcement-minded” officials like FTC Chair Lina Khan and Jonathan Kanter, President Biden’s pick to lead the Justice Department's antitrust division, according to Wu. It is also working to appoint judges who value economic justice and create a competition council to coordinate antitrust enforcement across the federal government, Wu said.
Wu, a special assistant to Biden, also previewed increased antitrust enforcement with a focus on going after mergers and companies’ dominant practices in their markets, Bloomberg’s David McLaughlin reports.
Blue Origin has a toxic work culture, staffers say
Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’s spaceflight company has a dangerous work environment where top executives perpetrate or ignore sexist behavior, according to an essay by the company’s former head of employee communications, Alexandra Abrams, citing an additional 20 anonymous current and former employees. The allegations come at a pivotal time for the company, which is racing to compete to privatize space travel, Hamza Shaban and Christian Davenport report.
“I personally experienced quite a bit of trauma at Blue Origin,” Abrams said. “I was not the first and I was not the last.” The Washington Post was not able to confirm the identities of the 20 workers or corroborate the allegations in the letter. (Bezos owns The Washington Post.)
Blue Origin “has no tolerance for discrimination or harassment of any kind,” the company said. “We provide numerous avenues for employees, including a 24/7 anonymous hotline, and will promptly investigate any new claims of misconduct.”
Rant and rave
Technology reporters watched the Senate Commerce Committee hearing on Facebook with rapt attention. Recode's Shirin Ghaffary:
The New York Times's Ryan Mac:
CNBC's Carl Quintanilla and Ari Levy:
Inside the industry
- FTC Commissioner Rebecca Kelly Slaughter speaks at the National Advertising Division’s 2021 conference today at 11 a.m.
- A Facebook whistleblower testifies before a Senate panel on Oct. 5 at 10 a.m.
- The Center for Strategic and International Studies hosts an event on sixth-generation technology on Oct. 6 at 3 p.m.
- Silicon Flatirons hosts an event on encryption on Oct. 7 at noon.